A friend (another author) sent me the URL of a web site of The New York Times called Author’s Note so that I could read the thoughts of another writer about why we write. I was so struck with his words that I quote them here for you:
By JAMES ATLAS FEB. 10, 2017
. . . I published my first book, a biography of Delmore Schwartz, almost 40 years ago. It, too, will soon begin its long journey to oblivion. I can imagine the stages: from that fabled used-books emporium the Strand to the remainder shelf of a secondhand book shop in a Maine resort town to the “de-acquisition” bin of a public library in Iowa to the bookshelves, if I’m lucky, of a country inn.
Is that such an ignominious fate? I didn’t write my books for posterity (not that posterity would have cared): I wrote them for myself. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t hunger for readers and fame. I never could have endured so much hard, solitary labor without the prospect of an audience. But this graveyard of dead books doesn’t unnerve me. It reminds me that I had a deeper motive, one that only the approach of old age and death has unlocked. I wrote to answer questions I had — the motive of all art, whatever its ostensible subject. There were things I urgently needed to know. Why did Schwartz, the most promising poet of his generation, end up dying at the age of 52 in a fleabag hotel in Midtown Manhattan? Why did my next (and last) biographical subject, Saul Bellow, tear up his life to feed his fiction, marrying five times, tormenting himself and others, finding in his self-inflicted suffering the elixir of his art? And what traumas buried within myself was I trying to unearth by spending decades on their stories? It wasn’t the hope of immortality that goaded me to write: It was obsession.
End of quote. I couldn’t have said it better.
Easter Sunday was on March 30 in 1975, one month before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. In Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, goes to English-language Catholic mass that morning after working all night at the Intelligence Branch at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon—he is deluged by intelligence indicating that the North Vietnamese are preparing to attack Saigon. He attends the service not because he is Catholic (he’s not) but because Molly, the American nurse at the Saigon clinic, is singing in the folk group for the mass.
My description of the mass and the music accompanying it comes from my own recollections. I was the director of the folk group at the American chapel, and I, like Chuck, had been up all night reviewing evidence of a forthcoming assault on the city. The folk group hymns sung at that Mass are the ones I remember: “I am the Resurrection,” “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace,” “My peace I Leave You,” and “How Great It Is to Be Alive.” I recall my feelings of cynicism at the joy of the prayers and music of the feast of Easter, the greatest feast in the Catholic church, contrasted with the brutal reality we were all facing. I knew then that the attack on Saigon was weeks away, even though I couldn’t persuade the Ambassador that the end was coming.
That was the last mass I attended in Vietnam. After that, every ounce of energy I had went into getting my people out of the country before the attack came. I went from 10-hour days to 16-hour days to no time at all for sleep. I never saw the members of the folk group again. When I was evacuated on the night of 29 April, I had amoebic dysentery and pneumonia from inadequate diet and sleep deprivation, but those illnesses weren’t diagnosed until I was back in the world (the U.S.) in May.
The meaning of Easter has never been the same for me.
A friend pointed out that almost everything I talk about in this blog dates in 1975 and before. Why don’t I talk about what happened after 1975?
Because I went on with my career for another 20 years, but none of that is declassified. In other words, I can’t legally reveal any of it. What happened in Vietnam that forms the basis for the fiction in Last of the Annamese was all declassified by 2015. What happened after that appears nowhere in my writing and probably never will. All I can really say is that I did a lot of travelling, but I can’t say where.
The languages I used to speak (I don’t claim to anymore—I’m getting rusty) are public information: French, Italian, German, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese, and I read Latin. Good luck in trying to figure out how they apply to my post-Vietnam career.
Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, the U.S. Ambassador dismisses intelligence indicating that the North Vietnamese will attack Saigon. That intelligence comes from the intercept and exploitation of North Vietnamese communications. The Ambassador claims, in a message to the U.S. President and Secretary of State, that the North Vietnamese have used communications deception to fool the U.S. signals intelligence specialists into believing that an attack is forthcoming. When Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine and intelligence officer working in Saigon, asks for the evidence to support such a conclusion, he is ignored.
Once again, the fiction follows fact. In March and April, 1975, I repeatedly warned the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, that a North Vietnamese attack on Saigon was imminent. My signals intelligence data was rejected as successful North Vietnamese communications deception. The Ambassador forbade evacuation and even preparations for evacuation. I cheated and got 41 of my 43 subordinates and their wives and children out of the country before the end. Fortunately, General Homer Smith, the Defense Attaché, disobeyed the Ambassador and proceeded with evacuation planning in conjunction with the Department of Defense and Command-in-Chief, Pacific. The two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end went out by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. I went out that evening under fire.
To my knowledge, labelling signals intelligence data as communications deception has been rare in our history. I never knew of a case in which the label was accurate. Those of us who worked on North Vietnamese communications knew the target backwards and forward. Anything false transmitted for the purpose of fooling us would have been immediately obvious. That’s because communications deception is extremely difficult to design and carry out and it’s so easy to detect.
My memories of the Ambassador’s refusal to accept the intelligence warning of a forthcoming attack make me all the more uneasy about what’s going on right now with President Trump. He dismisses valid intelligence and blames the intelligence agencies for leaking. In my years in the business, it was rare if ever that a member of the intelligence community leaked classified information to the press. When leaks occurred, the source nearly always turned out to be an intelligence customer, that is, a recipient of the finished intelligence. The culprits, more often than not, were members of Congress or their staffs.
Yesterday a cover story on me and Last of the Annamese appeared in two different local newspapers, the Howard County Times and the Columbia Flier. The same text with fewer photos also came out in the Baltimore Sun. I’ve received thirty-odd emails and several phone calls about the story. At last night’s meeting of the American Legion (of which I am a proud member), everyone I talked to had already seen the article. I heard jokes about being acquainted with a celebrity.
I was enormously flattered by the story. Both the text and the photos portrayed me in a positive light. The writing is good; the photos professional.
And yet, when I read the article, I felt haunted. The reporter, Janene Holzberg, found ways to get me to talk about things I don’t normally speak of. She contacted Larry Matthews who last year published Age in Good Time, a book about seven men whom he found “extraordinary; I was one of them. Larry had the same gift as Janene—when he interviewed me he got me to tell him things I usually don’t discuss. Janene quoted from Larry. The end result, for me, was feeling a little naked in public. It’s not that I mind those various facets of my personality and history being made public; it’s that I normally keep my wounds out of sight, less to shield myself than to avoid discomforting the viewer.
Maybe it’s better that my pain is now public. Readers of Last of the Annamese will understand where the story came from. I wrote the book in part to come to terms with my own hideous memories. Maybe my imperfect peace will be more complete.
The story is at http://eedition.howardcountytimes.com/Olive/ODN/HowardCountyTimes/default.aspx
A friend emailed me that the Columbia Flier also has the cover story. You can read it at
The February 16 edition of the Howard County Times features a cover story on me and Last of the Annamese. You can read it at http://eedition.howardcountytimes.com/Olive/ODN/HowardCountyTimes/default.aspx
If you read it, feel free to comment.